This is the second of a three-part article.
By Michael Pipkin
Even as I struggled with my call to ordained ministry during my last year of college, I was walking across the street to the Naval Officer Recruiting station having coffee with the recruiter, coming close on several occasions to signing the forms to enter the Navy to become a Flight Officer. The dream of jets was on the tip of my tongue, and yet I struggled with God’s call to ordination.
The recruiter suggested that I become a Navy Chaplain – and suddenly it felt like I, too, had a purpose in life, and I entered the seminary with that express desire: to become a Navy Chaplain.
What propelled me into the Navy in the first place was every bit a product of what my culture told me would make me a man, and what propelled me onto that battlefield in 2006 was every bit a product of what Navy Chaplains are trained to value – that a “good” chaplain is one who gives his very life for the service of his men.
At Chaplain School we were fed, over and over again, the story of the “Grunt Padre,” and the force of the story was that, if we were ever going to have any meaning at all, we would be like the Grunt Padre, Lt. Vincent Capodanno.
Chaplain Capodanno was a Roman Catholic chaplain who was killed in action in Vietnam and later recognized with a Medal of Honor that reads: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Chaplain of the 3d Battalion, in connection with operations against enemy forces. In response to reports that the 2d Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic-weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead, he directed the corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire. By his heroic conduct on the battlefield, and his inspiring example, Lt. Capodanno upheld the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the cause of freedom.”
Chaplain Capodanno is a legendary figure in the chaplain community – and his legend has grown to mythic proportions even as the Catholic Church is moving to make him a saint, none of which is to say, at all, that he was not a hero, or that he is not worthy of emulation. He certainly was and is. But, the myth of Chaplain Capodanno is the myth of war for chaplains: that if we are going to be a good chaplain, which meant that, if we were going to be loved by our Marines and sailors, then we would go wherever they went, do what ever they did, eat what they ate, sleep where they slept, and, if you were lucky, die like they died.
We were to provide, like the Grunt Padre, encouragement by voice and example to valiant Marines.
This was the only way to be a chaplain, a fact that was backed up by the countless times that “bad” chaplains were pointed out to me – the ones who stayed in the relative safety of their offices aboard ship, or in their tents at the rear of the battlefield. This was deeply underscored, for me, when, after being in Iraq for only three weeks, a rocket was launched into our camp, landing on the roof of our chapel, destroying most of the worship area and all of our senior chaplain’s office. Nobody was hurt – thankfully it happened on a Monday – but after that, the relative safety of my office never quite seemed like an option. I reasoned that I would have equal odds of being killed pretty much anywhere. And so I took risks that ultimately got me decorated for my bravery, recognized by my commanding officer as being his combat chaplain – a title, perhaps, most coveted by my peers.
There was pride in being a combat chaplain. It meant that you were a good chaplain, living into God’s call for your life and ministry. It meant that you were faithful. It meant that you were holy. It meant that you would get promoted and that God would allow you to continue to minister in extraordinary ways to extraordinary people in extraordinary places.
To further reinforce this myth, all of this happened in a context and culture that is meant to prepare us for combat. In training with my Marines, I learned the other myths of war – that our enemy was less than human, not worthy even of a name, and so we called them “Hajjis,” which, as I later discerned, is an even more violent name than “Gook” or “Nip” or “Kraut” because it is a bastardization of one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed on a person of Islamic Faith – the person who completes one of the five pillars, requiring them to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, is called a Hajji, and we were throwing that honorific title back at them as though it were excrement. We were fed pictures of them chained up as dogs. And we were formally taught classes on “The Warrior Code” where officers and other chaplains told us that our enemies were without honor, having no ethical code by which to order their lives – and we were taught that the most significant thing that we could ever do was to follow our flag into combat, as so many men had done before us – we were connected, in our minds, to the very same sacrifices of the men at Valley Forge, Tripoli, Iwo Jima, Kuwait, and Kosovo – they would be our strength, and we would be their honor.
What drove me to join that road repair convoy that day was the desire to be a good chaplain – a desire to live up to the name, to live up to the myth, to make my superiors proud of me, but more than all of that, I wanted my life and my calling to have some meaning – I wanted to be proud of me. I wanted my life to be connected to a history – I wanted to believe that somehow, through my service, I would be a brother to my grandfather, and that I could give my own children something to be proud of.
So I gave myself over to the myth, and in doing so, I became a part of the larger myth of war that suggests that war is necessary, even good, because in waging war we might create peace.
The Rev. Michael Pipkin is priest-in-charge of The Falls Church (Episcopal) in Falls Church, Va. He served in the Navy for nine years, including one tour of duty in Iraq. He also served as a Navy chaplain at Bethesda Naval Medical Center after returning from overseas. This reflection was delivered on Nov. 8, 2009, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va.